Democracy and its Convolutions: Paradoxes in Modern Democracy [published in Hebrew as Democratia Venaftuleha: Paradoxim Bedemocratia Hamodernit], Shmuel Noah Eisenstadt, Broadcast University, Army Radio, Ministry of Defense Publications, 114 pages, NIS 42
Francis Fukuyama's important article "The End of History" cites the high points of liberal democracy. In the heated atmosphere characteristic of the end of the previous century, Fukuyama charged that ideological struggle has ended, leaving one clear victor - the liberal-democratic model. All future ideological discussions would take place in the shadow of this model. For a few moments it seemed writing "liberal-democratic theory" would be superfluous - just "liberal-democratic history" would do.
The age of democratic complacency ended with a bang on September 11, 2001, almost as soon as it had begun. When the Twin Towers collapsed, an awareness that the ideological debate was in fact not over pervaded the consciousness. Democracy had to face old-new enemies - religion and nationalism were back on the field and ready to do battle.
This new clash is depicted as a struggle between the "democratic axis," including the countries of the West, some in South America, and a tiny number in Asia and Africa, against the "evil axis" that has built its base in the poor, embittered, hurt part of the world, This is the part that is ruled non-democratically and is subject to the power of religion - especially Islam - and nationalism.
The events of September 11, 2001 also brought into greater focus the fact that pockets of resistance to democracy exist in the heart of the democratic world itself. Unlike the 20th century, the 21st century is depicted as a century in which democracy will be compelled to wage struggles in national and international arenas to guarantee its ideological and political supremacy.
Eisenstadt's important book emphasizes the fragility of Western democracy, and brings the tools to understand the strength and weakness of this system. Eisenstadt reminds us that the unique character of democratic politics lies in its ability to enable social and political mobility.
This mobility is simultaneously a source of stability, because it enables members of new groups to take part in democratic life and protect their unique interests, and a source of instability, because the new political forces inundate interests that are opposed to those of the ruling groups, and undermine the existing social order.
Every democracy has to deal with the tension between openness and stability, between change and continuity. So long as the argument is only about interests, they can be contained. But when the argument is over the basic principles that underpin the political system, the risk of it breaking apart the political system is much greater.
Stable democracies manage to internalize non-democratic world views and keep them in check. They incorporate the world of values that they offer into part of the democratic discourse. One good example of this is the Scandinavian countries, who succeeded in making national and mythical concepts part of democratic discourse. Another is how many Western democracies have internalized religious discourse.
Democratic theory, says Eisenstadt, belongs to the world view that removed God from the formula of how the world works, and saw nature and humankind as operating according to a set of autonomous rational laws. Yet every democratic leader knows he is better off enlisting God on his side. At times, this involves a formal association, as in Britain where the queen simultaneously symbolizes both the political and religious establishments. At times it involves an ethical-emotional connection, as in the United States where despite strict separation of religion and state, every session of Congress opens with a prayer, the currency bears the legend In God We Trust, and the divinity is invoked at times of national distress or of victory. God is the "present absent" of democratic society. Strong democracies stress the importance of God or the people, but restrict the roles of religious or nationalist institutions in ways that weak democracies dare not.
The main limitation imposed on God or the people is an absolute ban on turning an internal democratic struggle between rivals who must find a compromise into a struggle between enemies who must be eliminated. It is forbidden to turn a debate between citizens with divergent interests into a battlefield in which cosmic forces vie with one another.
"The demonization of the rival," says Eisenstadt, "undermines a fundamental principle of democracy - viewing politics as a struggle between rivals with whom we compromise."
Contrary to the open democratic approach, totalitarian regimes have a closed concept of the political pie. The struggle is total and uncompromising - either the entire cake is ours, or the entire cake is our enemies.
Compromise is therefore viewed as unwelcome and even illegitimate, and if we are obliged to accept it, this is done under a cloak of secrecy, and under the table. Ideologically, the obligatory position is that there are no compromises, that this is a closed game, that for the good of the general public, the rival is an enemy and must be liquidated. At the same time, every pluralistic and autonomous arrangement of the civil society is tossed aside and derided as doing harm to the general good.
Democracies live in peace then with religious and nationalist models that have gone through a process of liberalization and that have internalized the values of pluralism and viewing the other as a rival, not an enemy. These democracies are subject to extended struggles with totalitarian religious and national outlooks - like dictatorial communism and revolutionary anarchy - that seek to wipe out the other and destroy the old world.
The democratic correction is always measured and deliberate, reformist and non revolutionary. It sees value in compromise, considers imperfection to be an indivisible part of human nature and endeavor, and views the mistakes made by democracy as a basic right of society. The democracy finds itself fighting a constant rearguard action against revolutionary and dogmatic world views.
When is the struggle supposed to employ democratic tools and when does it justify the restriction of these tools? The decision made by the United States in the 1920s, an era of liberal-democratic dogmatism, to consider communism as an enemy and not a rival and to hunt down its supporters was greeted with torrents of contemptuous criticism and condemnation.
Enemy of my rival
And now, the newer trend of considering anything foreign, especially if it is Muslim, as an enemy, is again the focus of criticism. What is the appropriate democratic equilibrium? Democratic theory and democratic politics do not offer any one answer. The United States has always been quick to bend the rules of the liberal-democratic game and declare its opponents enemies.
Bush's speeches calling for an uncompromising struggle against the "evil axis," like his slip of the lip that described the war against Osama bin Laden as a Crusade, are an apt expression of this proclivity. In truth, countries that are exposed to genuine, recurring, fundamentalist threats, such as India and Israel, are much more hesitant to limit the freedoms of the opponents of democracy and declare them to be enemies. Such a pronouncement would transform the democratic political argument into a uncompromising struggle of bloodshed. Is hesitation a source of strength or weakness? Only in the future will we know if the inclusion of fundamentalist forces in the democratic game led to the democratization and liberalization of these forces, or to the weakening of democracy itself.
More than any other question, this is the one that hovers over Israel's democracy. There are those who believe that the democratic process will temper the opponents of democracy and make them full partners in democratic life. Others view tolerance of anti-democratic forces as an opening to the destruction of the democratic regime. Both groups cite the Israeli model as an example to support their position.
Eisenstadt is correct when he explains that the conditions in which Israeli democracy were conceived were far from ideal: Its founders did not come from a democratic background and did not have a democratic culture, large scale waves of immigration brought with them rapid social and cultural changes, and from the moment of its foundation to the present, Israel has been fighting a war of survival. Israel has experienced wars, the assassination of a prime minister, changes of government, economic crises; it has carried out a prolonged occupation, its quality has been eroded, but it has survived. However, its democratic existence is never assured.
Eisenstadt ends his book with an important caveat. "Democratic regimes all over the world, and even in the United States, are not carved in bedrock whose existence is guaranteed after its formation. Without constant vigilance and continuous activity, democracies could collapse gradually - or even overnight. We need to recognize this potential for fragility, and realize that the danger can be overcome only through openness, watchfulness and a strong insistence on protecting freedoms. I want to hope that Israel will succeed in that, despite - and maybe in some degree thanks to - the intensity of its democratic life" (page 109).
"Democracy and its Convolutions" is a short book that outlines the realm of democratic debate in a lucid and condensed form, and hints at the difficult questions that should be discussed after completing this introductory book. But without the introduction, without explanation of the concepts and cognitive principles featured in this book, such debate cannot start. It is therefore important that this book be read, in order to make it possible to conduct the democratic argument on a firm conceptual and ideological foundation.
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